Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: African-Americans and the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Barracks Door, Civilian Conservation Corps.

Barracks Door, Civilian Conservation Corps.

Credit: Image courtesy of the National Archives, Record Group 35.

The New Deal marked an important shift in the American electoral landscape as significant numbers of African-Americans gave their votes to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party for the first time, establishing a political loyalty that has endured for roughly seventy years. New Deal recovery and relief programs rapidly became a central element in blacks' endeavors to survive the harsh economic realities of the Depression. One of these programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, provided more than a quarter of a million young black men with jobs and was consequently another arena in which the black community waged the struggle for greater equality.

This lesson explores that struggle and its implications for the New Deal's impact on American society; it examines a series of documents written by New Deal officials, including the President that concerned black CCC workers. It also considers documents that present the CCC from the perspective of black participants and observers. Drawing on other background readings and the diversity of views that these documents reflect, students will analyze the impact of this New Deal program on race relations in America and assess the role played by the New Deal in changing them.

Guiding Questions

To what extent did the treatment of African-Americans in the CCC represent a growing commitment on the part of the federal government to combat racial discrimination and empower the black community?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Explain the basic purpose of the CCC and describe the work that it did
  • Describe some of the benefits gained and problems faced by African-Americans who worked in the CCC
  • Describe and evaluate the attitude and approach of different New Deal officials towards the black men in the CCC
  • Analyze and evaluate the CCC as a vehicle for black advancement
  • Discuss the nature and extent of racial discrimination in America

Background

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the first New Deal initiatives to be enacted into law by Congress. The first enrollee was inducted only thirty-seven days after Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration. As a component of what came to be known as "The Hundred Days," which marked the beginning of President Roosevelt's first term, the CCC was unquestionably part of FDR's broad response to the mass unemployment that plagued the United States in 1932. However, the idea that the unemployed should form work brigades to clear and improve a nation's forests and thus preserve the natural environment had long been supported by a variety of conservationists, political theorists, and reformers. The agency represented a government response, supported by a range of groups, to the crisis facing young people as well as the environment in the 1930s.

The Civilian Conservation Corps enrolled over three million young men between the ages of 17 and 23 in the years from 1933 to 1942. These enrollees planted trees, fought fires and performed other conservation-related tasks. They also worked at improving parks and building roads. One quarter of a million of these young men were African-Americans. African-American participation in the CCC was set at ten percent, a figure equal to the black population, and the law establishing the corps outlawed discrimination based on race. Despite these legal provisions, CCC Director Robert Fechner ordered segregation as the official policy in response to the complaints of local community leaders and corps administrators. African-American members of the CCC faced harsh treatment as a result of racial attitudes held by the residents of local communities as well as those of CCC and other program leaders. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights groups protested the conditions to little avail. Jim Crow policies remained in place for the duration of the program.

A good short account of the CCC's structure, work, and achievements can be found on the Civilian Conservation Corp Legacy website. A more extended analysis of the CCC that contains a detailed description of its origins and a more thorough explanation of its operations and political trajectory can be found at the Brief History of the Civilian Conservation Corps on the website of  The National Parks Service. Finally, a concise but thoughtful sketch of African American participation in the CCC can be found on the EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network website African Americans and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory site from the Library of Congress has an excellent exhibit on The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship which discusses the Depression and start of World War II.

In combination, these sources should provide teachers with a general knowledge of the New Deal, African Americans' twentieth-century experience, and the background needed to teach this lesson.

 

Preparation Instructions

Teachers preparing to teach this lesson should review the following documents, which can be found under the subheading African-Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the "Documents" section of the New Deal Network.

Teachers can also have students make use of student LaunchPads, which are listed in the left sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources." 

Teachers should also review the Introduction to these documents on the New Deal Network, which provides an overview of the issues surrounding African-American participation in the CCC.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. FDR and African-Americans in the CCC

Give each student a short, two paragraph excerpt (first two paragraphs) from the New Deal Network's Introduction to African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Students can also use the LaunchPad for this activity.

Open a discussion of these paragraphs by posing the following question:

  • Based on the very limited information provided in this excerpt, what do you think were the possible positive and negative features of this program for African Americans during the Depression?

Student responses to this question may be shared in a full class discussion and posted on a blackboard or they may be developed in smaller groups, which then can be presented to the class as a whole.

Give each student a copy of FDR's 1935 Memo to CCC Director Robert Fechner Open a discussion of this document by posing the following questions:

  • What policy is President Roosevelt calling for here and why do you think he is calling for it?
  • What, if anything, does this document tell you about conditions faced by black workers in the CCC and the attitude of the President and the federal government towards them?
  • What, if anything, does this document tell about the attitude of the President and the federal government towards racial discrimination in the United States?
  • How much do you think the policy that was called for in this memo advanced racial equality in America given the fact that racial segregation was still the law in many states?
  • What was the political, economic and social status of blacks in the different parts of the U.S. at this time and to what extent does the CCC's treatment of blacks accept or challenge that status?
  • Is FDR's attitude toward blacks in this memo positive or negative? How can you explain his position toward blacks in the CCC?

As students respond to these questions, press them to support their positions with evidence from the memo or the Introduction. Also encourage students to respond to positions taken by other students and to explain whether they agree or disagree with their classmates' views.

Activity 2. The Debate on African-Americans in the CCC

Students can use the accompanying LaunchPad for this activity.

For homework, students should complete the following assignment:

Students should read print-outs of these documents and for each of them highlight or underline evidence that helps answer the following questions:

  • What problem faced by black CCC workers does the document describe?
  • What solutions to this problem does the federal government offer?
  • Why do you think the federal government offered the solution that it did?
  • What do the problem and the solution tell you about the attitude of the federal government towards black CCC workers?
  • What do the problem and the solution tell you about the attitude of the federal government towards racial discrimination?
  • When all the documents are taken together, what do they tell you about the New Deal government's attitude toward black CCC workers and racial discrimination in general?

In Class: The teacher should lead the students in a discussion of these four documents. The discussion can start with separate consideration of each document and the accompanying questions, or it can begin with a response to the homework's last and more general question, considering all documents together.

In either case, the teacher should encourage students to evaluate not only the role of the federal government in general, but also the role of different government officials and thus the different approaches that existed within the Roosevelt Administration. The teacher should also encourage students to discuss other questions or issues that the documents may raise. Examples include:

  • To what extent can the federal government as a whole be held responsible for the behavior and attitudes of locally hired government officials?
  • How should a federal policy be implemented when federal officials differ in their understanding of that policy?
  • Do you think that some blacks employed by the CCC preferred to work in segregated units?

As always, the teacher should press students to support their answers or remarks with evidence from the documents and to respond to opposing interpretations similarly by using the text.

Activity 3. A First Hand Account of African-American Life in the CCC

Students can use the accompanying LaunchPad for this activity.

  • For homework, students should complete the following assignment:
    • Read A Negro in the CCC, a "first hand" account of black life in a CCC camp published in the NAACP's Crisis magazine in 1935.
  • As you read the article:
    • Highlight or underline evidence that suggests that this man's experience in the CCC was positive. Write a 'P' for positive in the margin next to every reference you think is positive.
    • Highlight or underline evidence that suggests that this man's experience in the CCC was negative. Write an 'N' for negative in the margin next to every reference you think is negative.
    • Using evidence from the article and from your own understanding, write a two or three paragraph explanation of why you think the writer "heartily recommends" work in the CCC and why you agree or disagree with his recommendation.
  • Divide the class into small groups of three to five students each.

In their groups, the students should identify and discuss the evidence they have selected from the homework document and respond to the following questions:

  • What was positive and negative about this man's experience in the CCC?
  • What, if anything, does this description of the black CCC experience tell you about the attitude of the federal government towards black CCC workers and racial discrimination?
  • How typical do you think this man's experience was and why?
  • How reliable a source of information is this account? What is the basis for your judgment?

After the students have spent roughly half of the class time in small group discussion, the teacher should bring the entire class together for further analysis of the document's evidence and for discussion of the above questions.

Activity 4. The CCC Agency's View of African-American Participation

Students can use the accompanying LaunchPad for this activity.

The teacher should distribute copies of What The CCC Is Doing For Colored Youth, by Edgar Brown, the agency's advisor on racial affairs. Students should be asked to identify evidence that persuades them or does not persuade them that:

  • Work in the CCC was a positive experience for young black men.
  • The federal government played a positive role in using the CCC to fight racial discrimination and empower black workers.

The teacher should ask every student to highlight or underline and then label persuasive and unpersuasive pieces of the text as a way of preparing students for discussion of this document.

Assessment

Essay Assignment: Write an essay that analyzes the role played by the federal government in providing opportunity for African-American workers in the CCC and in responding to the discrimination these workers faced. In other words, how strong was the federal government's commitment to fighting racial discrimination in the CCC? Use evidence from the documents and sound reasoning to defend your conclusion.

Extending The Lesson

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League played important roles in pressuring the Roosevelt Administration to recognize, defend, and advance the rights of African-Americans.

Students can examine and analyze the roles played by civil rights groups in shaping New Deal policy in more detail.

To do this they should first review the CCC-related documents they have been given and locate references to these civil rights organizations that they can then explore on the web. They should also examine additional accounts of civil rights groups' responses to other New Deal initiatives and look for similar references that will provide information about these programs.

They should then write down the specific actions taken by civil rights organizations that these references describe or suggest.

Looking at these lists, they should then attempt to describe in writing what the actions have in common, what agenda, if any, they represent, and what they think these organizations' strategies were for pressuring the government to promote equal opportunity and combat racial discrimination. Before writing, they should construct a clear thesis that summarizes their conclusion. The essay should support this thesis.

 

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • David Gerwin, Queens College, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Avram Barlowe, Urban Academy (New York, NY)

Resources

Student Resources
Media